Critics Say Questions About Citizenship Could Wreck Chances for an Accurate Census

A naturalization ceremony in Tampa, Fla., last month. The government has sought to count everyone living in the United States, legally and otherwise, since the first census in 1790.

WASHINGTON — A request by the Justice Department to ask people about their citizenship status in the 2020 census is stirring a broad backlash from census experts and others who say the move could wreck chances for an accurate count of the population — and, by extension, a fair redistricting of the House and state legislatures next decade.

Their fear, echoed by experts in the Census Bureau itself, is that the Trump administration’s hard-line stance on immigration, and especially on undocumented migrants, will lead Latinos and other minorities, fearing prosecution, to ignore a census that tracks citizenship status.

Their failure to participate would affect population counts needed not only to apportion legislative seats, but to distribute hundreds of billions of dollars in federal money to areas that most need it.

“I can think of no action the administration could take that would be more damaging to the accuracy of the 2020 census than to add a question on citizenship,” Terri Ann Lowenthal, a consultant and leading private expert on census issues, said in an interview. “It would completely pull the rug out from under efforts to have everyone participate in the census as the Constitution envisions.”

The government has sought to count everyone living in the United States, legally and otherwise, since the first census in 1790. The decennial census has not asked all respondents whether they were citizens since 1960, although much smaller Census Bureau surveys of the population have continued to include citizenship questions.

The Justice Department request, first reported by ProPublica, was made in a Dec. 12 letter that said more detailed information on citizenship was critical to enforcing Section 2 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which bans racial discrimination in voting.

The number of voting-age citizens is one measure used to determine whether the minority population in a legislative district is sufficient to determine an election, and the department said the results of the American Community Survey, a smaller annual review that covers about 10 percent of the population each decade, were too imprecise to be reliable.

Voting rights advocates said, however, that the data from that smaller survey had long been used effectively to enforce the law. They said that adding a citizenship question to the census would not enhance voting rights, but suppress them by reducing the head count of already undercounted minority groups, particularly the fast-growing Hispanic population.

“The first effect, of course, is on reapportionment,” Tom Saenz, the president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said in an interview. “And that seems to be the overarching goal — to stop the shifting of representation from non-Latino states to heavily Latino states.”

A Justice Department spokesman, Devin M. O’Malley, said in a statement that the Census Bureau hac recognized that results of the American Community Survey are “not the most appropriate data” for use in districting matters. “The Justice Department is committed to free and fair elections for all Americans and has sought reinstatement of the citizenship question on the census to fulfill that commitment,” he said.

A substantial undercount would affect red and blue states alike — deeply Democratic California has nearly seven million eligible Hispanic voters, while deeply Republican Texas has nearly five million. But the true impact would fall on Democratic representation at all levels of government, because Latinos and other minorities are largely reliably Democratic constituencies.

The last census failed to find 1.5 percent of the Hispanic population, the Census Bureau said, an undercount exceeded only by the 2.1 percent of African-Americans who were missed. No reliable estimate exists of how many more might be deterred from participating in the census by a citizenship question, but among several experts interviewed, the consensus was that it could be substantial.

Even small variations can have large political consequences. In 1997, Republicans vigorously fought a proposal to statistically adjust census results to address undercounts and overcounts, in no small part because their own study suggested the tweaks could affect election results in as many as 26 of the 435 House seats.

In a so-called long-form version of the census that was dropped after 2000, about 17 percent of respondents were asked whether they were citizens, although not whether they were in the country legally. Since then, the citizenship question has been asked annually in the American Community Survey.

The citizenship question proposed by the Justice Department differs little, if at all, from the one in the American Community Survey. Experts fear, however, that requiring an answer from all Americans would cause many minorities to avoid responding to all census questions for fear that their responses would be given to other government agencies.

The dropouts would be likely to include not only undocumented migrants, but entire families who are in the country legally but who house friends or relatives who are not.

Census Bureau experts raised the same concern in a Sept. 17 memo to senior officials in which they noted a sharp rise “in respondents spontaneously expressing concerns about confidentiality in some of our pretesting studies” conducted since January, when President Trump took office. “In particular,” the memo stated, “researchers heard respondents express new concerns about topics like the ‘Muslim ban,’ discomfort ‘registering’ other household members by reporting their demographic characteristics, the dissolution of the ‘DACA’ (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival) program, repeated references to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), etc.”

“Respondents reported being told by community leaders not to open the door without a warrant signed by a judge,” the memo stated. It also reported that “researchers observed respondents falsifying names, dates of birth, and other information on household rosters.”

In a written statement, a Census Bureau spokesman, Michael C. Cook Sr., said on Tuesday that a complete and accurate census was “one of our top priorities.”

“We are evaluating the request and will process it in the same way we have historically dealt with such requests,” he said.

Several experts said, however, that the Justice Department request is all but unprecedented, at least in modern times. Census questions undergo a yearslong vetting process that includes trials and other research to ensure that a query elicits an accurate response and does not have unwanted side effects. In contrast, the Census Bureau must submit a final list of questions to Congress in less than three months — on April 1 — and will conduct only one major field test of the census process this spring.

Including a new question so late in the process effectively offers no opportunity to test and correct wording problems. And if a citizenship query did depress responses, as experts have predicted, it could add hundreds of millions of dollars to the cost of the count: Sending enumerators to track down and interview nonresponders is by far the most expensive part of the entire process.

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